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#SpeakUp: The Importance of Dignity

Jean E. Thomson Black—

First published in 2011, Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks has become a perennial bestseller, paving the way for the release of a tenth anniversary edition and as well a sequel, Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings out the Best in People. Hicks, an associate at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, remains in high demand for her expertise and regularly speaks at seminars to share the invaluable lessons that Dignity has to offer, particularly within conversations surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Hicks developed Dignity because she felt her “understanding of conflict had a missing link.” Her experiences of nearly thirty years in the field of international conflict resolution had revealed that “violations to our sense of value and worth inevitably give rise to conflict.”1 She had learned that a person’s sense of worth was undermined when his/her/their dignity was violated. What she did not realize was how universal dignity violations are and how widespread.

She developed a new model for understanding dignity, its ten essential elements, the ten ways it can be violated, and how to heal relationships with dignity.  These lessons are applicable across all aspects of #SpeakUP 2023. Even now, Dignity offers thought-provoking concepts, new points of view, and advocates for social change, and Leading with Dignity provides pathways to creating a culture in which everyone can thrive.

Hicks situates our understanding of dignity with respect to its evolutionary roots: What is it that can “punch a button” and make one feel humiliated without realizing such a reaction is part of our humanity? Dignity is “our inherent value and worth.” The “ten essential elements” she offers are acceptance of identity; inclusion; safety; acknowledgment; recognition; fairness; benefit of the doubt; understanding; independence; and accountability. The “ten temptations to violate dignity”2 are taking the bait; saving face; shirking responsibility; seeking false dignity; seeking false scrutiny; avoiding conflict; being the victim; resisting feedback; blaming and shaming others to deflect guilt; and engaging in false intimacy and demeaning gossip.

Through workshops, speeches, and presentations, as well as her two books, Donna Hicks has developed a following among a wide variety of institutions and communities.  They include higher education (which has requested dignity leadership training); the U.S. State Department and other state, federal, and local offices or agencies; many businesses large and small, the healthcare professions; the United Nations; and numerous nonprofits and philanthropies (including several or more university presses)  There has also been a notable response from the DEI community, some who have retitled their work as “dignity, equity, and inclusion.”

At one time or another, all organizations can struggle with relationships among their colleagues and wider communities, including university presses.  The events of the last four or so years have affected us, our way of life, and our businesses: the COVID pandemic with the experience of going through lockdowns and vast changes in day-to-day practices and the wider effects of George Floyd’s persecution and death—these have led to heightened awareness of why diversity, equity, inclusion, acceptance, and belonging are essential. In 2023, Yale University Press developed its own response as a values statement:

Yale University Press is a community of professionals driven by intellectual curiosity and the pursuit of excellence. We are committed to fostering an environment that encourages healthy discourse and understanding that extends to the public sphere. We value one another both as individuals and for the contributions that move us toward our shared goals. Each of us strives to exemplify:

  • Excellence: We endeavor to be our best selves and actively support each other to put forth the highest quality of work. 
  • Passion: We care deeply about our work and how it contributes to the collective mission of publishing important books. 
  • Trust: We rely on each other, operate with integrity, and communicate transparently.
  • Respect: We treat each other fairly and with dignity, remaining open to different perspectives.
  • Kindness: We are considerate of one another and demonstrate a generosity of spirit in all interactions.  
  • Inclusivity: We seek a diversity of viewpoints and do not tolerate discrimination or harassment in any form.

In Leading with Dignity, Hicks offers “the three C’s”: “connection to our own dignity, to the dignity of others, and to the dignity to something greater than ourselves.”3 She provides a template dignity pledge for organizations struggling with relationship problems.  The principles are that dignity, identity, leadership, people, relationships, the workplace, and conflict all matter. But ultimately, “at the heart of dignity is love.” Creating environments where people can flourish and develop is core to who we are, how we can thrive, and look forward to healthier futures.

1. Hicks, Donna, and Desmond Tutu. 2021. Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict. Tenth Anniversary Edition. Yale University Press.

2. Ibid.

3. Hicks, Donna. 2019. Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings out the Best in People. Yale University Press.

Jean E. Thomson Black is Senior Executive Editor for Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Environmental Sciences, and Medicine at Yale University Press.

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